October drone strikes by the Turkish Armed Forces on Kurdish-held areas of northeast Syria damaged critical infrastructure and have resulted in water and electricity disruptions for millions of people, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on October 26.
The findings come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to lash out at Israel over its bombardment and besieging of the Gaza Strip, accusing the Israelis of committing gross war crimes against civilians.
New York-based HRW cited civic groups as saying that the Turkish military strikes—on more than 150 locations in north and east Syria in the governorates of al-Hasakeh, Raqqa and Aleppo between October 5 and 10—killed dozens of people including civilians, and damaged civilian structures.
The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which governs the targeted areas, confirmed that the attacks on water and power stations, resulted in the “complete cutoff of electricity and water supply” from al-Hasakeh governorate, HRW added.
Critical oil installations and the only operational gas plant for domestic use in northeast Syria were also damaged by the attacks, the rights watchdog also said. It noted that in the city of al-Hasakeh, an ongoing water dispute that started with Turkey’s 2019 invasion of parts of northern Syria, had already been jeopardising the right to water for nearly a million people, including residents and displaced communities.
"By targeting critical infrastructure across northeast Syria, including power and water stations, Turkey has flouted its responsibility to ensure that its military actions do not aggravate the region's already dire humanitarian crisis,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “People in al-Hasakeh city and its surroundings, already facing a severe water crisis for the past four years, must now also bear the brunt of increased bombardment and destruction, exacerbating their struggle to get essential water supplies.”
Turkey greatly stepped up its ongoing drone strikes on Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria after a group affiliated with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) said it carried out an October 2 suicide attack on the entrance to the interior ministry in Ankara, injuring two policemen. Turkey declared on October 4 that infrastructure, superstructure and energy facilities in Syria and Iraq were legitimate targets for security forces, armed forces and intelligence elements.
Turkey, the EU and the US have designated the PKK as a proscribed terrorist group. However, Turkey also says the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria and the autonomous administration, which is the northeastern region’s governing body, make up an affiliate of the PKK that should also be seen as “terrorist”. Washington denies that is the case and says the SDF remains a vital ally in the battle against Islamic State in Syria.
HRW also stated in its report that, according to the autonomous administration, damage to infrastructure caused by Turkish attacks that took place between October 5 and 10 impacted an estimated 4.3mn people in northeast Syria with at least 18 water pumping stations and 11 power stations rendered non-operational.
The electrical power facilities targeted include the Sweidiya power plant, a vital electricity source for over one million people, and the north Qamishli electricity transfer station, supporting 40,000 families, said HRW. The attacks left these critical facilities unable to operate, resulting in a total disruption to both power and water supply services, as of October 18, it added.
Both the al-Gharbi dam transfer station in al-Hasakeh, typically catering to over 20,000 families, and the Amuda transfer station, serving 30,000 families, also remained inoperative as of October 18 following attacks that caused damage to them on October 5, HRW said, adding that the Amuda transfer station is also responsible for supplying power to Derbasiya transfer station, which in turn powers the Alouk water station.
HRW added in its report: “Turkey and the autonomous administration repeatedly failed to reach a durable solution to ensure that the embattled Alouk station in the occupied Ras al-Ain (Serekaniye) district of Syria, which supplies Kurdish-governed al-Hasakeh city and its environs, operates at optimal capacity and without interruption.
“Because of these disruptions, communities that usually depend on the station are instead forced to rely in large part on expensive – and often poor-quality and untested – water from unregulated privately owned trucks, the local water authority said. An al-Hasakeh resident said the water they received from private trucks ‘was yellow and looked rusty’.
“This has given rise to poor sanitation and outbreaks of water-borne illnesses and disease, including cholera in September 2022, they said. An emergency doctor at al-Hasakeh hospital said that, between April 9 and May 9 alone, 104 cases of people with acute diarrhea, which may be caused by a water-borne disease, were admitted to the hospital, and 84 cases with gastric infections. The hospital only has a capacity for 50 to 60 such cases, so some have had to be turned away. A doctor said that the hospital’s kidney dialysis center was particularly affected because it needs a continuous supply of purified water.”
The October 2023 strikes, said HRW, were not the first time Turkey appeared to have intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure. Airstrikes in November 2022 also inflicted damage on densely populated areas and critical infrastructure.
Under the laws of war, observed HRW, Turkey and other parties to an armed conflict “must not attack, destroy, remove, or make useless objects indispensable to the civilian population’s survival, including for water distribution and sanitation. Governments and de facto authorities are obligated to realize the right to water by ensuring that people under their jurisdiction or other responsibility have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. They are also required to refrain from interfering, directly or indirectly, with the right to water in other countries.”